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Playing safe

Gerald Haigh goes on tour with a ground-breaking safety road show for primary schools

Imagine, in a roomy indoor space, a realistic model of a small town. The wooden buildings are big enough to contain furnished interiors and the streets are just wide enough to be crossed. On this stage set - for in effect this is what it is - are enacted a range of practical lessons on safety for young children.

This is Safety Scene, a mobile resource that can be conveyed to a school or institution by trailer. Its target audience is key stage 1, though once on site it could be used by other age groups. I catch up with it in the hall of Queen Elizabeth's Mercian School in Tamworth, Staffordshire, which is acting as host for local primary schools who are visiting in groups.

Many of the activities are what you would expect: the model road is marked with crossings and junctions and children are taught road safety by road safety officers and the police. There is also a section of rail track, where children learn about the danger of straying on to the line. Then there is a doctor's surgery, a police station, an electricity sub-station, a domestic sitting room and a kitchen.

In the police station a constable talks to children about dealing with strangers, or what to do if they get lost. In the sitting room, a firefighter helps children to find danger points: a mirror over the fire, a frayed flex on the iron, cups of tea on the television set. A safety officer in the electricity sub-station talks about the potentially fatal consequences of climbing in to retrieve a ball. In the doctor's surgery a health visitor gives friendly reassurance about medicines and injections.

Parked outside is an ambulance, owned by the St John Ambulance organisation. Children are invited to climb in, says St John volunteer Harry Johnson, mainly to allay their fears. "We just want to convince them that if you ever have to get into one of these, then there's nothing inside that can hurt you."

Each of the professionals at Safety Scene does this sort of work anyway, usually by visiting schools. Bringing them together like this, though, is far less time-consuming, both for them and for the schools.

Ralph Hill, head of Bird's Bush Primary, Tamworth, has taken children to Safety Scene from Year 1 or Year 2 for the past four years. We watch his six-year-olds making 999 calls from a real phone box - excellent language practice as well as an important skill.

"Safety Scene is a wonderful experience for them," he says. "They get a lot from it, especially as we spend a lot of time preparing for the visit."

The scheme is the brainchild of Stan Harding, a freelance television director based in Birmingham. He saw something similar on a visit to the US, and realised that through his contacts with artists and scene builders he could produce something much more realistic.

"I read an article saying that more children are killed and injured in the home than on the roads, and so I set this up at first with the help of the Rotary Club," he says. "It started as a hobby and now has developed into a commercial venture."

It is unlikely that a single school could organise or afford a Safety Scene visit. It is a project that will involve perhaps 20 primary schools, and therefore needs to be led by a consortium, a local authority or an organisation such as Rotary or Round Table. It needs a lot of indoor space - ideally, not less than 80 feet by 45, which usually means a sports hall or disused warehouse. Typically, it will be on site for two weeks, during which time local primaries will come on two-hour visits, with up to 50 children at a time.

What tends to happen, though, is that once it has been to an area, people like it so much that it comes back again - and the organisation becomes a little easier with each return visit.

A two-week visit from Safety Scene costs Pounds 2,000 plus the cost of transport. It takes a day to erect and half a day to take down. According to Stan Harding, this works out at about Pounds 3 per visit per child. For more information, contact Stan Harding, Whitefriars, Church Lane, Halesowen B63 3BH.Tel: 0121 550 3914

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